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Romaine Calm and Garden On: What YOU can do for safe food from your garden!

Once again, we’re learning more about a multistate E. coli illness outbreak from romaine lettuce originating in California. Although these large events make the news, localized incidents - such as a 2018 outbreak of Salmonella infections originating from tomatoes at a church dinner in Kansas - have immediate impact on individuals and local food systems.

But how do these things happen? Often, there are a number of contributing factors, including using contaminated water for irrigation, using dirty tools and equipment, not washing hands before harvest, or harvesting produce that may be contaminated with feces – think bird droppings on blueberries, deer poop in spinach, or dog poop near the green beans.

Bird droppings in blueberries. Easy to miss when picking!

Why should I care about produce safety in my garden?

If you grow produce to sell or give away, or maybe you are part of a community garden where many people grow and harvest, it’s your responsibility to keep it as safe as possible. Remember that fresh produce is food – and you may not know who is eating the food you grow. Some people, particularly children, elderly folks, or those who are pregnant or have compromised immune systems, can become seriously ill or even die from foodborne illness in produce.

How can I use good food safety practices in my garden?

Produce safety doesn’t have to be scary or overwhelming! There are simple steps you can take to minimize risk when growing produce. These steps, known as Good Agricultural Practices, or GAPs, are science-based actions that can be used to make produce safer. As gardeners, here are some things you can do:
  • Wash hands before harvesting produce or anytime they may source of contamination, such as after using the bathroom or after applying compost to the garden.
  • Clean harvest tools and equipment regularly by washing in soapy water, and spray with a sanitizer.
  • Do not harvest any produce with poop on it! If you accidentally do, properly dispose of the contaminated produce and wash your hands.
  • Do your best to keep wild animals out of the garden using fences or decoys. And while pets are family, they don’t belong in the garden!
  • Use caution when applying any manure-based product, such as composted manure, bedding material from backyard chickens, raw manure from a friend’s farm, etc. Unless you can verify that the product has been fully composted (e.g. following protocol from the National Organic Program), apply it to the garden at least 120 days before harvest.
Be sure hands and tools are clean before you start harvesting!

I'd like to learn more!

These are only some of the many steps you can take to reduce the risks of foodborne illness in fresh produce for sale or giving away. You can learn more about GAPs through Extension’s On-Farm Food Safety Program.

We provide GAPs education for farms, gardens, and growers of fresh fruits and vegetables in Minnesota. We assist growers of all sizes in adopting practices like handwashing, deterring and monitoring for animals, safe use of water for irrigation, cleaning and sanitizing containers, tools and equipment, and writing food safety plans.

Keep an eye on our webpage for information about upcoming GAPs workshops.

Author: Anne Sawyer, PhD

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